“We’ll be like a museum”: Lamu locals fear huge regional infrastructure plan
The multi-billion-dollar LAPSSET project promises to transform Kenya — including the oldest Swahili settlement on the African coast.
This is the first part in the series What does “development” actually look like? The case of LAPSSET looking into the effects of the LAPSSET corridor on local communities along its proposed route in: Lamu, Garissa, and Turkana.
Along Manda Bay, the mangrove-lined lagoon on Kenya’s coast, a Chinese dredger scoops up millions of tons of sand and coral. Near the shore, a piledriver hammers huge pillars into the sea bed to anchor an 800-metre causeway where huge container ships will one day dock.
This deep-water port is the first phase of an ambitious scheme that, the government hopes, will eventually link Kenya’s shoreline to South Sudan and Ethiopia by road and rail. The LAPSSET (Lamu Port—South Sudan—Ethiopia) project, expected to cost around $25 billion, is designed to boost trade and secure Kenya’s position as regional harbourmaster for landlocked neighbours. It is also intended to invigorate the economy of northern Kenyan regions long marginalised from national development.
Here in Lamu County, however, many residents view the project with grave misgivings. Communities on the archipelago of islands at the mouth of Manda Bay have been barred from fishing grounds once rich in crab, prawns and red snapper. “They have been dredging for three years, destroying the coral,” complains Mohamed Somo, leader of the county’s Beach Management Unit. “Fishermen are losing livelihoods, and they have no schooling so cannot get a job.”
Lost coral also means lost snorkelling for tourists – another source of income for the overwhelmingly Muslim Lamu islanders, who say theirs is the oldest Swahili settlement on the African coast and take pride in historic cultural and trading linkages with Oman. Lamu town, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, is full of stone buildings, narrow streets, and carved doors. Donkeys can be seen carrying goods around the traffic-free island. For over a century, tourists have visited the islands to see its pristine marine environment and traditional crafts. “These tools were my grandfather’s,” says an elderly boatman, demonstrating a bow drill as he repairs a hand-crafted dhow.
But tourism – and these rich traditions more widely – may struggle to withstand the modernising vision of Kenya’s central government. Plans for Lamu include not just a port, but an international airport, a massive 1 GW coal-fired power plant, an oil refinery, and an industrial park. It also includes a “resort city” that, according to Victor Nyakachunga, a communications officer with the LAPSSET Authority, will have a population of “between one and two million”. Lamu County’s present population is little more than 100,000.
Full funding for the vision is not yet in place. So far, only three berths of the port have been financed in a $484 million contract with the China Bridge and Construction Company. LAPSSET planners hope this will stimulate Public Private Partnership investment in many more berths and in an export pipeline to bring crude oil from recently discovered fields in Turkana, 800km to the northwest. China Power and a consortium of Kenyan investors are seeking Chinese state finance for the power plant, which is expected to cost $1.9 billion. But concerns at Kenya’s rising debt, and strenuous environmental objections, may delay the project.
A sign of things to come?
If a new city is not an immediate prospect, however, an early sign of what may lie ahead can be found in Hindi, a scrappy but vibrant settlement on the mainland just outside the port area. This is home to more than 10,000 people. Most are migrants from other parts of Kenya, according to one of the most successful, who introduces himself as Tony and says he moved here from the central highlands in 2010. He has since acquired considerable business interests, dealing in land, machinery hire, animal husbandry and supply of fresh meat to Chinese contractor camps.
“Five years ago, there were just a few buildings here and people were sleeping under the trees,” he recalls. Now, makeshift homes and yards fenced with iron sheets are being replaced by brick houses, grocery stores and bars. “New people are arriving every day,” he says, and it is the most determined and entrepreneurial who come.
Some newcomers rent land to grow crops and raise livestock. Others work as casual labourers or small traders.
Edward, a young motorbike taxi rider, says he arrived three years ago, having ridden across the country from the Rift Valley.
James, a middle-aged man from western Kenya, says he gets by doing casual labour, mostly loading contractors’ trucks. Two of his children have now established their own households in Hindi. “One day this place will be bigger than Nairobi,” he jokes.
Marginalised at home
Back on Lamu Island, few people find this notion funny. Fahad Mohammed, a former member of the County Assembly, fears that with a huge expansion in population, the existing community will find themselves marginalised. “We are scared if many people come from other parts of the country, we might get the leader we don’t want because we don’t have the numbers,” he says. “We are trying to bring the old people in the county together so that when outsiders come they will not be able to outvote us.”
Some worry that marginalisation might lead to radicalisation. Sporadic attacks along Kenya’s coast by al-Shabab militants from neighbouring Somalia have already seriously damaged tourism and delayed road building projects. And some locals believe that the heavy-handed security response is only further alienating people and stimulating violence.
“People don’t feel part of things,” says Thima Aboud, who runs an anti-radicalisation programme under the NGO Kikozi. She claims that for young men, there is “a long, hectic process to get an I.D. card”. “They are treated as a target, as suspected sympathisers,” she says, with some subjected to arbitrary detention and disappearances. “If you treat someone like a beast, they will turn into a beast,” she adds.
An island hotelier known as Bush, who started an annual Lamu Festival, underlines the point. “If the government continues to marginalise Lamu youth then that is very dangerous. Al-Shabab will take advantage. They will say ‘You see, your government doesn’t respect you, it marginalises you, why don’t you come and join us?’”
Many other locals complain of simply being in the dark about the LAPSSET plans. “They say this is a national project, they bring the cream team from Nairoibi, but we are not in the full light,” says a planning officer with the county government. “The County Assembly is supposed to get the information and disseminate, but there is a communications issue.”
Walied Ahmed, who leads Save Lamu, a local NGO that has campaigned against the coal-fired power plant, agrees. “We only hear rumours. We don’t see the official documents. They say ‘this is very special and confidential.’”
The enormous LAPSSET plan is set to transform the region. That may be a welcome prospect for several communities, but for many in Lamu, it is a deeply worrying. “There will be gangsters,” predicts one resident. “We will be like a museum,” says another.